Honoring our Native American service personnel on Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a time set aside for Americans to remember and honor those brave souls who died serving this wonderful country. They include men and women from all walks of life, from every corner of America and of every race, ethnicity, religion and creed. From the beginning, the sons and daughters of this great melting-pot nation have selflessly put their lives at risk to protect and uphold our precious freedoms. They have earned and deserve our undying gratitude.

This Memorial Day is an appropriate time to recognize the service contributed by the very first residents of North America. Native Americans have served and died for the United States from the beginning. Almost 3,600 served in the Union Army during the Civil War, including General Ely S. Parker of the Seneca Tribe, who served on General Ulysses Grant’s staff. Parker’s father had fought for the country in the War of 1812.

Even though American Indians were not considered U.S. citizens when World War 1 broke out, 12,000 of them volunteered to serve the country in the Great War, including 14 women who joined the Army Nurse Corps. By the end of the Second World War, 44,500 Native Americans had taken up arms for the country–about one-third of the able-bodied Indian men of service age. Had the whole population enlisted at the same rate, the draft may not have been necessary.

Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, a Brule Sioux tribal member, who was born in Coeur d’Alene and grew up in St. Maries, earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism as a combat pilot in WW2. A 1970s television series, Baa Baa Black Sheep, was inspired by Colonel Boyington and his Black Sheep Squadron. Medals of Honor had been earned by 28 other Native Americans.

Pascal C. Poolaw Sr., a Kiowa tribal member, served in WW2, Korea and Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart in each war. He died near Loc Ninh, Vietnam, on November 7, 1967, where he earned his fourth Silver Star for bravery under fire. More than 42,000 other Native Americans served in Vietnam and the names of 232 of them show up as this nation’s honored dead on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

Raymond Finley, a member of the Flathead Tribe who grew up in St. Maries, enlisted in the Marines, just as his brother had. Raymond died in combat in Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, on October 1, 1967. He is honored on the Wall in Washington, on Idaho’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Idaho Falls, and on a special memorial at De Smet, Idaho.

I was reminded of the Native Americans’ dedication to service of country when I recently spoke with Phil “Bart” Sagataw, whose father was a Potawatomi Indian and mother a member the Ottawa Tribe. Bart is a long-time resident of Boise and telephone company retiree. He and his seven brothers all voluntarily enlisted to serve this country.

Bart served in Vietnam in 1969 with the 173rd Armored Cavalry and 101st Airborne. His oldest brother, Kenneth, served in the Korean War, brother Larry began years of service with the Special Forces in Vietnam in 1964, Mike was a Marine at Khe Sanh in 1966, Harvey served on a Navy gunboat on the Mekong River, Levi served with the Army in Germany, and both Donald and Faron served stateside with the 101st Airborne.

A national memorial to honor the many thousands of Native Americans, like the Sagataw brothers, who have served and are serving our country is expected to open in Washington on Veterans Day next year. Congress authorized the memorial in 1994, but legislation allowing fundraising was not approved until 2013.

The memorial, called the “Warriors’ Circle of Honor,” will be located next to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. It will be a fitting and long-overdue tribute to the patriotism and dedicated service of the roughly 156,000 Native Americans and Alaska Natives who are veterans or active duty military.

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